As surely as the Honka fans have the worst chants in Finnish football, and the Veikkausliiga referees are clueless to keeping a clear line on refereeing decisions, this Veikkausliiga season “preview” again arrives a good few weeks after the season has actually started.
But if poor weather is a good enough reason for the league to postpone half of the first round matches, it will do for me as well. Be that as it may, here we go again for another season of top Finnish football.
FF Jaro: This time Jaro go down
Jaro have been teetering on the brink of relegation for a number of years, but it seems unlikely that anything or anybody will save them from the drop this time around.
Too many key players left after last season and too few potential ones arrived. With the colossal striker Frank Jonke shouldering most of Jaro’s hopes, little in terms of jubilation is promised in Pietarsaari this season.
Despite limited firepower up front, defending is definitely Jaro’s main concern. It is all well and good to try to play possession football, but to do so without good enough players and with a self-destructive and attacking strategy (as was seen often last season) borders on extreme naivety (and actually smacks of limited tactical know-how).
Coach Alexei Eremenko has what often seems an almost untouchable reputation in Finland and particularly in Pietarsaari. This season the Jaro legend’s coaching abilities will be put into closer scrutiny than ever before.
Prediction: Jaro look light on every department and are destined for the drop. Relegation.
Transfers in: Hugo Miranda (Sport Colombia), Igor Jovanivic (Rot-Weiss Erfurt), Hendrik Helmke (Sabah FA), Shahdon Winchester (W Connection)
Transfers out: Jussi Aalto (Haka), Heikki Aho (Ilves), Sherif Ashraf (Haras El-Hodood), Papa Niang (FK Vostok Oskemen)
HJK: Nothing stops HJK from retaining title
HJK have perhaps the best team in the club’s history (perhaps even the best in Finnish football history). And nobody will stand in their way in claiming their 5th consecutive title. The title, however, is only a positive disturbance on the way to the greater prize: qualification for the Champions League or Europa League (however, the realism of this goal will be a discussion for another day).
HJK have brought in a host of Finland internationals: Striker Mikael Forssell returned home after a decade or so spent in clubs like Chelsea, Mönchengladbach and Birmingham; Former Tottenham midfielder Teemu Tainio was signed from New York Red Bulls; Mika Väyrynen, who was at HJK already last term, also signed on permanent basis; and HJK finally got a ball playing centre-back in Tapio Heikkilä as well.
Despite all the big-name arrivals, signing Sixten Boström as coach may be the single most important deal HJK have made since hiring Antti Muurinen back in 1997. Boström arrives with the promise of not only trophies but also of bringing the extra vision to maximise the still slumbering talent in the team.
Boström has a wide selection of different types of players in the roster, and this will allow the former Örebro coach to employ a variety tactical choices and the possibility to rotate players during the long season. The balancing act of keep consistency in the domestic league while at the same time going the extra mile in Europe will be the most difficult challenge for HJK in 2013.
Prediction: HJK will drop points especially on away trips but will stroll to the title in the end. Champions
Significant transfers in: Mikael Forssell (Leeds), Tapio Heikkilä (FC Honka), Teemu Tainio (New York Red Bulls)
Significant transfers out: Rami Hakanpää (KuPS), Sakari Mattila (AC Bellizona), Juho Mäkelä (SV Sandhausen), Berat Sadik (FC Thun)
Honka: Complete mystery or potential surprise package?
Honka are a bit of a mystery. One the one hand, they are younger and less experienced than before. But one the other, they pulled some pretty eye-catching transfers during off-season. Former Wigan and Ivory Coast international Abdoulaye Meite, journey-man Spaniard Ruben Palazuelos and Finland international Roni Porokara joined just before the start of the season.
Looking at Honka’s opening line-up, you cannot help but wonder what the doom-monger are shouting about. The first eleven has clear attacking intent while attaining a sense of balance. The defence was far from perfect last season, but it should still give a decent enough platform for Honka to build on (especially now that Meite is running the show). The only real concern is the lack of a certified goalscorer upfront.
The team also has a good mix of players at different stages in their careers: seasoned workmen like Jussi Vasara, up-and-coming hotshots like Youness Rahimi, young established players such as Tim Väyrynen and Lum Rexhapi who need to take the step up to become leading players in the league, and experienced players like Porokara needing a fresh start to their careers.
Prediction: Whatever happens Honka should have a relatively stress-free season. At best they may even challenge for a top five finish. 6th
Transfers in: Kastriot Kastrati (HJK), Abdoulaye Meite (FC Dijon), Roni Porokara (Ironi Kiryat Shmolna), Ruben Palazuelos (Botev Plovdiv)
Transfers out: Tapio Heikkilä (HJK), Nicholas Otaru (FC RoPS), Toni Petrescu (Haka), Duarte Tammilehto (TPS), Juuso Simpanen (SJK)
IFK Mariehamn: If there is one thing we should have learnt by now, it is never to write off MIFK
Like every year, there are question marks hanging over MIFK. Last season’s 4th place was a bit of a sensation, but the islanders will more likely build on from that success than break down by the weight of expectation.
For one thing, despite there being plenty of new recruits, the team is not built in the extreme pick-and-mix style that has been the norm for MIFK in recent years. Most of the new players fall into two categories: tried and tested Veikkausliiga players (Niko Kukka) or potential (and cheap) signings from the lower Swedish divisions (Robin Eriksson and Diego Assis). When you add the marquee signings of Petteri Forsell and Pekka Lagerblom, Maarianhamina have a team that can battle and dazzle in equal measure. Especially Forsell has the ability to lift the whole team with his attacking abilities, and he should be one of the stand-out players in the league.
Prediction: Loosing Aleksei Kangaskolkka and Kristian Kojola will hurt MIFK, but considering that Forsell will provide the flow in the attacking third they can even challenge for a top three finish. 4th
Transfers in: Niko Kukka (MyPa), Diego Assis (Assi IF), Pekka Lagerblom (RB Leipzig), Petteri Forsell (Bursaspor), Kris Bright (Haka)
Transfers out: Wilhelm Ingves (Halmia IS), Mason Trafford, Kristian Kojola (Hallescher FC), Aleksei Kangaskolkka (Jönköpings Södra), Mika Niskala (Retired)
Inter: Decline imminent but prophesies of crisis exaggerated
Inter played a dreadful pre-season campaign. They somehow lumbered through the six League Cup matches recording just one draw. Even though you should not make too much of LC success (or the lack thereof), the winter season has put some pretty loud alarm bells ringing in the blue and black side of Turku.
There is one fact though many seem to have forgotten about Inter: they still have quite a decent squad. Even without the star player Mika Ojala, the first eleven does not pale in comparison to any in Veikkausliiga side (save HJK of course). Especially their centre channel bolsters some of the league’s finest names: Magnus Bahne in goal, Tuomo Turunen in defence, Pim Bouwman and Tamas Gruborovics in midfield and Georgia international Irakli Sirbiladze in attack.
The main concern for Inter and coach Job Dragtsma is to reinvent their style now that they don’t have Ojala’s brilliance too fall back on. Giving the reliable Ari Nyman a fixed role in the team might just provide the little bit of defensive pragmatism Inter need. Sitting him in a defensive midfield position could provide the team with solidity while also releasing Gruborovics to play higher up the pitch, where he was in devastating form for JJK last season.
Inter should have enough pedigree to shake off the winter baggage and compete for a top five finish. To get there however, every player needs to raise his game in the absence of Ojala.
Prediction: Inter have worked so well as a collective in recent years that it is hard to imagine that one miserable pre-season campaign would have changed this. 5th
Transfers in: Tuomo Turunen (Trelleborgs IF), Tamas Gruborovics (JJK)
Transfers out: Daniel Antunez (CD Chivas), Joni Kauko and Joni Aho (Lahti), Mika Ojala (BK Häcken)
JJK: No such thing as a boring season in Jyväskylä
JJK 3rd-place finish from 2011 was followed by a disastrous last season during which they shipped in a staggering total of 65 goals and finished 9th. Needless to say that the first priority for JJK in 2013 is to bolster the defence. However, with the material the coach Kari Martonen has, the fans can be happy if he manages to paper over the cracks.
And speaking of Martonen, this is a big year for the Finland U21 coach. The achievement from two years back looks good on his CV, as does the successful Europa League qualifying campaign from last summer, but Martonen must instil some serious dose of consistency and balance into their playing if he wants to keep his status as one of the top coaches in Finland. Last season ended with the sound of the fans singing for his dismissal, and it will probably not take many defeats for the former Honka assistant to get an encore.
While Martonen has his hands full organizing the defence, he will also have to figure out how to get the most out of two potential key players: Mikko Manninen and Jani Virtanen. Both have the skill to be match-winners but neither showed anything slightly resembling that last season.
Prediction: Difficulties ahead for the Jyväskylä team. If JJK can shore up the defence, they may be able to compete for a mid-table finish. 9th
Transfers in: Anssi Viren, Santeri Ahola (Honka)
Transfers out: Tamas Gruborovics (FC Inter), Niko Markkula (Eskilstuna City), Juha Pasoja (Retired)
KuPS: From last season’s 10th spot to top 3? Not happening.
After KuPS splashed the cash on Jussi Kujala and Dawda Bah, many immediately predicted a top three finish for them. Considering last season’s disjointed performances, it will take plenty more than two big name signings to clean up the mess in Kuopio.
The first priority for coach Esa Pekonen is to plug up their leaking defence. KuPS conceded 53 goals last term, and even though the reliable, although injury-prone, Rami Hakanpää was brought in, there is little to suggest the demanding fans in Kuopio will see a marked improvement this season. The team sis imbalanced, and there is a demand for both a proven scorer of goals and a pair of reliable hands in goal.
It is encouraging that some young talent (Aleksi Paananen and Jerry Voutilainen) is coming through the ranks, but Pekonen’s track record of developing players does not really provide encouragement.
Prediction: KuPS are definitely better than last season, but there is still a long way for the Kuopio team to become contenders. 7th
Transfers in: Jussi Kujala (Ilves), Dawda Bah (Augsburg), Rami Hakanpää (HJK), Omar Colley (Wallidan FC)
Transfers out: Atte Hoivala (VPS), Markus Joenmäki and Pyry Kärkkäinen (FC Lahti), Chris James
Lahti: Surprise package of 2012 push for European places in 2013
Lahti surprised most people last season (including yours truly) by finishing 5th and playing some inspiring football along the way. The surprise element in now gone, but the League Cup victory during winter showed that 2012 was not just a one-off achievement.
For one thing, the squad is balanced and packed with versatility, which is something few Veikkausliiga teams can boast of having. Lahti were also one of the biggest winners of the transfer market after somehow managing to sign Joni Kauko and Joni Aho. With the experienced duo included in the squad, Lahti have a coherent, skilful and combative first eleven able to take on anyone in the league.
The coach Tommi Kautonen has really proven himself in Lahti, and this season should provide further notches to his CV. The main concern for Kautonen are the limited resources upfront: at 34 Rafael is not what he used to be, Vini Dantas remains unproven and Tommi Kari injury-prone.
Prediction: Lahti have definitely enough quality to secure a safe mid-table finish and providing that they find a source for goals even push for the top three. 3rd
Transfers in: Joni Kauko and Joni Kauko(FC Inter), Markus Joenmäki and Pyry Kärkkäinen (KuPS)
Transfers out: Ariel Ngueukam (Denizlispor), Drilon Shala (Tavsanli Linyitspor)
MyPa: Stability expected after last season’s success
Little did the so called experts know when writing MyPa off before the start of last season. The unassuming Kouvola team finished the season deservedly at 6th place, and they will look to utilize the same strengths in 2013 that made them such a difficult team to beat last term.
The balanced, young and hard-working team is built in the ambitious image of the coach Toni Korkeakunnas. The squad is again constructed on a shoestring budget, but Korkeakunnas is definitely the man to make to most of what he has.
It was highly important for MyPa that top scorer Pekka Sihvola remained in Kouvola, and much depends again on the 28-year old’s consistency in front of goal. MyPa did sign an identical understudy for Sihvola in Ville Salmikivi, the 1st division top scorer from 2011, who should be able to nip in with a few goals.
Prediciton: MyPa will probably take a step back in 2013, but they should keep comfortably clear of any relegation troubles. 8th
Transfers in: Jere Pyhäranta and Ville Salmikivi (FC Viikingit), Plaisil Bahamboula (Royal Antwerp FC), Jonathan Okafor (Brown University), Yannick Salmon (Rutgers University)
Transfers out: Antti Kuismala (MP), Niko Kukka (MIFK), Ryan O’Neill
RoPS: Could the Lapland club finally establish their Veikkausliiga status?
There is great optimism in Rovaniemi for 2013. The Lapland club dominated the 1st division throughout last season and seem to have turned a fresh page in the club’s history after the gambling scandals.
However, life back in Veikkausliiga may not turn out to be as rosy as expected. The squad boasts little real quality and (too) much depends on Aleksander Kokko’s scoring form. If Kokko focuses on applying himself 100% to the game, the former joint league top goalscorer may go on to reach double figures. But as the former Honka man has shown time and again during his relatively short career, his ability to take his eye off the ball too often exceeds his natural talent. The arrival of Niklas Tarvajärvi is very interesting though, and if the former Heerenveen striker stays fit he may turn out to be an important signing.
Prediciton: The coach Kari Virtanen has built a resilient team, but that alone can only take the Lapland club so far. RoPS will be in trouble but will survive relegation, just. 11th
Transfers in: Tomi Maanoja (Sandefjord Fotboll), Antti Okkonen (FC Inter), Ville Saxman (MyPa), Nicholas Otaru (Honka), Niklas Tarvajärvi (Go Ahead Eagles)
Transfers out: Jose Manuel Rivera (CD Chivas), Mikko Vilmunen, Eetu Muinonen
TPS: Will TPS use chance to become biggest behind HJK?
On the one hand, four 3rd-place finishes since 2007 is testament to TPS’s status as one of the top clubs in Finland. But on the other hand, the fact that TPS have not really challenged for the title during that time, or even reached second spot, suggests there’s a lack of a winning culture in the black and white side of Turku. This season, however, TPS have the perfect chance to make a claim to become the runners-up in Finland.
Especially the return of Wayne Brown, the sensation of the 2009 season, provides a huge boost on and off the pitch. Assuming that the former Bristol Rovers playmaker takes a big role, Petteri Pennanen maintains his form from last season and prodigal son Roope Riski finds his scoring boots, TPS have the quality and slickness to rip defences apart. With the reliable Mika Ääritalo also in the squad, TPS attack boasts a versatility that only HJK can match.
Much depends, therefore, on the coach Marko Rajamäki’s ability to instil a bigger creative spark into TPS’s attacking play.
Prediction: If Rajamäki is able add diversity in their direct approach while getting the best out of his attacking players, the Turku team will take the next step up to second. Runners-up
Transfers in: Wayne Brown (TPS), Duarte Tammilehto (FC Honka),
Transfers out: –
VPS: Missed chance in 2012, little chance in 2013
Despite the healthy financial climate in Vaasa, last season’s bleakness on the pitch doesn’t give much to go on in 2013.
VPS missed their cue to make a statement in Veikkausliiga in 2012. The appointment of Olli Huttunen as coach and the signings of Jarno Parikka, Cheyne Fowler and Sebastian Strandvall were supposed to bring about a new football era in Vaasa. In the end, all except Parikka underachieved quite badly, and VPS retained their reputation as the most boring team in the league.
It is not all doom and gloom though. Henri Sillanpää is a solid signing in goal, and, who knows, Oluwatomiwo ”Shola’s brother” Ameobi may turn out to be a good foil for Parikka. If everything clicks in the most spectacular way, VPS may even surprise a few people.
Prediction: The words spectacular and VPS are seldom comfortable in the same sentence, but boring as VPS are, they should still remain safe from the drop. 10th
Transfers in: Henri Sillanpää (GAIS), Patrik Lomski (SJK), Anthony Dafaa (Azech SF), Jordan Seabrook (Haka), Oluwatomiwo Ameobi
Transfers out: Riku Heini (FC Lahti Akatemia), Steve Morrisey (Silkeborg IF), Denis Abdullahi (Viikingit), O’Brian Woodbine
Images: Wikimedia Commons